Adopting a stronger call to action Friday, a state agency concluded its review of the Cameron Todd Willingham case by urging Texas fire officials to re-examine investigations that may have relied on arson evidence now known to be unreliable.Further, reports Lindell:
The Texas Forensic Science Commission also added language to its final report clarifying the role that now-discredited "arson indicators" played in Willingham's conviction on murder charges.
The commission's inquiry, focused on the arson science behind the Willingham case, was never intended to weigh the guilt or innocence of the man Texas executed in 2004.
But the report adopted Friday marked the first time a state agency has acknowledged that unreliable evidence played a role in Willingham being convicted of setting fire to his Corsicana home in 1991 and killing his three young children.
much of Friday's efforts were focused on whether the state fire marshal's office — whose investigator was the prosecution's star witness against Willingham — has a duty to re-examine other past investigations that may have been influenced by now-discredited investigative techniques.
"If the science changes, if the interpretation of the case changes over time, is there an obligation to inform the stakeholders and the criminal justice system? If the answer is no, then we're really in trouble," said commissioner Sarah Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist and associate professor at Sam Houston State University.
Accredited forensic labs, when presented with evidence that a result was invalid or mistaken, are required to correct the error, inform everybody involved and fix the underlying problem, added commissioner Nizam Peerwani, chief medical examiner of Tarrant County.
Agencies that engage in interpretive scientific analysis, including fire investigators, should follow a similar guideline, Peerwani said.
Commissioners agreed, adding language to the final report urging the state fire marshal's office to develop standards to review past cases and correct any errors discovered.Obviously I think that's excellent news. Grits has been calling for several years for a formal reevaluation of old arson cases where flawed methods or faulty science came into play. Indeed, that's not just something that's needed in criminal cases. Most arson investigators are paid by insurance companies, not law enforcement agencies, and it's a safe bet that for every false criminal conviction based on flawed arson science, there were many more insurance claims denied for arson that never resulted in a criminal conviction. Nobody has even done the primary research to identify old criminal convictions based on flawed arson forensics, much less everyone with insurance claims that were improperly denied. There's little doubt we're talking about millions of dollars in unpaid losses if such an analysis were ever undertaken, in addition to however many innocent people have been convicted over the years..
That said, if such a reevaluation is to occur, maybe it should be the Attorney General's office that does it instead of the state fire marshal, who hasn't exactly taken an enlightened or neutral stance throughout this process.
See prior, related Grits posts:
- Forensic commissioner: State fire marshal testimony 'embarrassing'
- Experts: Willingham investigation negligent even by 1991 standards
- The politics of reexamining flawed arson foresics
- If arson science in Willingham case was 'flawed,' what about other, similar cases?
- How best to vet old arson innocence claims?
- Willingham debate not focused on arson science
- Arson cases a tangle of science and supposition
- Arson cases fueling innocence debates
- Many arson convictions based on invalid science
- Arson convictions may be next venue for innocence claims
- College to develop screening processes for vetting old arson cases for bad forensic science